Article: The Power of the Puzzle

The other Saturday I was fortunate enough to attend the first birthday party of the beautiful daughter of two of my best friends. Whilst everyone was tucking into cake and watching baby Isabelle pay far more interest to the wrapping paper than to any of her lovely presents, I found myself in a bit of a quandary.

Each Saturday I try to tweet a maths puzzle via @TESmaths. With the 140 character constraint, these tend to be short, snappy ones to get my followers thinking. The puzzle I sent out on this particular day came courtesy of the excellent @7puzzle and went as follows:

“Arrive at the target answer of 24 by using each of the numbers 2, 2, 6 & 9 exactly once and having + – x ÷ available to you”

The problem was, having tweeted it out to a couple of thousand followers, I realised I didn’t know how to do it. My girlfriend was the first to identify the anguish on my face.

“I’m sure I’ll get it in a minute”, I reassured her.

“What’s that?” asked a family friend, wiping icing from their mouths

“Oh, nothing” I replied, “I’m just a bit stuck on a maths puzzle”.

And so it began. The family friend put the cake down, Auntie Laura turned the telly off, Uncle Simon went to get a pen and paper, and before long everyone was engrossed in the problem.

“What were the numbers again?” asked Granny, who I had assumed was asleep.

And that is the power of a maths problem. Even people who claim they do not enjoy maths, or cannot do it, can be transfixed a simple sounding puzzle. And this is true of pupils of all ages and abilities as well. So, wherever possible I try to include a puzzle in each of my lessons. Nrich, UKMT and @7puzzle have thousands just waiting to be used. They help students develop problem solving and reasoning skills, get them talking about maths, and most importantly of all, get them engaged in the subject.

For the record, it was Isabelle’s Dad who eventually got the answer (along with many of my razor-sharp followers), much to my annoyance. What was it, I hear you ask? Well, follow @TESmaths and you will find out!

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